After 25 years, devolution is in ICU – so why’s no one trying to save it? Brian Monteith

‘Surely now is the time for the parties offering an alternative to give some thought to what can be done to make devolution work?’

It was not meant to be like this. We were told devolution was going to make Scottish politics better in every respect. We were going to have a fresh, more open democracy superior to the smoke-filled rooms at Westminster. It would be less tribal, more consensual with proportional representation giving everyone a voice. The committee system would be more powerful, with greater scrutiny and accountability.

Local Government would be released from Whitehall centralism, public services would be reformed and improve, the NHS would be saved from Tory privatisation, education would excel, Scottish arts would flourish and our economy – well that would be inspired by, er, the new spirit of Scotland having more of a say in its domestic affairs.

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Oh, and “devolution was going to kill nationalism stone dead” – what could go wrong?

25 years of the Scottish Parliament was marked over the weekend25 years of the Scottish Parliament was marked over the weekend
25 years of the Scottish Parliament was marked over the weekend

After such enthusiasm and optimism at the dawn of devolution one might expect the weekend’s passing of the Silver Anniversary of those first heady days might be a moment for celebration, a time for asking how we can build on the success of Holyrood – the institution we’ve come to respect and be thankful for.

Well maybe we would have raised a glass or danced a jig if it had indeed delivered on the promises the Scottish people were given, but instead it has slumped into a state of torpor, living in its own bubble detached from the realities of Scottish life, it is often an embarrassment that leaves Scotland open to global ridicule.

I was there taking my place as a new MSP on that first day and despite having been an opponent I, like my seventeen Conservative colleagues, sought to make it work. Were it to do so it should, after all, strengthen rather than weaken the United Kingdom.

Sadly, devolution has gone the way of so many political dreams; being oversold from the start it has turned out even worse than I anticipated to the point that support for its abolition appears to be rising even though there is no political party or any formal campaign pushing for such an objective.

The policy failures have been legion: the scandal of the rise in drug deaths and the failure to give it the priority it deserves to put it right; the collapse of school discipline, standards of numeracy, literacy and overall attainment; the embarrassment of so many public works from the parliament itself, to roads to bridges to ferries repeatedly running late and over budget.

There’s the hollowing-out of local government which previously produced leaders who struck fear in the consciences of Scottish Secretaries of State, there’s the capture of the third sector so it has lost any semblance of independence from the Scottish state; the growth of the unaccountable quangocracy exposed in this paper has become a dripping roast for a faceless nomenklatura; the collapse of so many healthcare services that people regularly opt for private surgical and dental procedures without so much as a whimper of complaint.

What successes Holyrood does claim for itself could have been delivered by ministers appointed from the ruling government like we used to have before the great expense of a professional talking shop was added on top of the governance process. The smoking ban? A Scottish Health Minister could have done that, after all Tony Blair did it a year later. Gay marriage? That actually happened in England first, Scotland could have had it at the same time.

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A National Theatre Company? That was an initiative of theatre directors and had cross party support, we didn’t need Holyrood to establish Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera or the original Scottish Arts Council.

A Council Tax freeze? Scottish Ministers could have done that – it was already within their powers.

Add to the policy failures the weaponizing of devolution by the SNP, manufacturing and then nursing grievance after grievance so devolution then began to eat itself. Even the areas where Scotland once excelled became neglected and fell into decline.

Yet for all the policy failures the greater crisis has surely been the failure of the institution to hold the ruling administrations to account – to limit the power of the executive to close down opposition, silence opponents and maintain a level of secrecy that freedom of information was meant to prevent. The parliament’s inability to force ministers to resign or for MSPs to face the wrath of their electorates is stark in comparison to the accountability at Westminster.

With all of this failure and still two years before the next election surely now is the time for the parties offering an alternative to the SNP to give some thought to what can be done to make devolution work?

How do we improve the analysis, scrutiny and debate of legislation, how do we improve the quality of MSPs so they have real life experience, how do we strengthen the committees so they are at least as powerful if not more so than those at Westminster (as originally claimed)?

How do we stop parties gaming the electoral system so they can be elected with a paltry amount of support? How do we strengthen local authorities – should more decision-making be devolved away from Holyrood to our local councils, should our cities have directly elected Provosts with cabinet-style executives?

These and other ideas need to be explored, thought through and common ground found between parties so change can be effected. For without developing a consensus behind the need for change and what the best alternatives are it is never going to happen.

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Will Douglas Ross or Anas Sarwar grasp the nettle or will outsiders not yet corrupted by Holyrood, like Reform UK be the vehicle to speak the truth to power?

Somebody has to step forward or nationalism will just cannibalise devolution further no matter who is First Minister.

Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European parliaments and editor of



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